Iranians celebrate spring equinox as their new year begins

Jamshid Goshtasbi got the call at 1:25 p.m. Saturday from his younger brother in Kerman, a city in southeastern Iran.

By Tara Bahrampour /Washington Post

Were he and his family ready? Was the "haft-seen" table set up, with its mirror, its goldfish, its seven items starting with the letter S? Only seven minutes remained until Nowruz, the spring equinox holiday celebrated in Iran, Central Asia, the Caucasus and surrounding regions. It is also the first day of the Iranian year.

Goshtasbi and his wife, Shahrzad Yazdani, both natives of Iran, and their daughters Yasna, 9, and Athra, 7, were ready. They had cleaned the house and dressed in new clothes; they had burned rue and sandalwood outside the front door to welcome the spirits of departed loved ones. They had placed a painted egg on a mirror on the table in the hopes that, as the year 1388 gave way to 1389, the egg would move on its own (although in Goshtasbi’s childhood, "the elders would jiggle the table" to help it along).

"Mommy, what are you doing? Why are you doing that?" Athra asked as her mother inserted sticks of incense into the outer wall of the house.

"Because it smells good, and it’s disinfecting," her mother said.

"And," her father said, "if we have a visitor from above . . . "

" . . . They smell their way here," her mother said with a laugh.

Iranians of all religions and ethnicities usually celebrate Nowruz no matter where in the world they are, but this year’s Nowruz celebration came with added international recognition, taking place a month after the U.N. General Assembly added the holiday to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Although in Iran the holiday is celebrated by Muslims, Christians, Jews and others, it has particular historical resonance for Zoroastrians, such as the Goshtasbis, who practice the 3,700-year-old religion that once spanned the Middle East and parts of Asia and Europe.

The Washington region is home to about 500 Zoroastrian families, mostly Iranians or Parsis, who migrated from Iran to India. They celebrate religious holidays together, and their children take classes in Avestan, the language of the Zoroastrian scripture.

Although Nowruz is more of a celebration of spring than a religious holiday, "it has its roots in the Zoroastrian tradition," Jamshid Goshtasbi said, adding that many elements of Zoroastrianism, such as the seven days of creation, were incorporated into Judaism and Christianity. "According to the Zoroastrian philosophy, the departed, they never forget their friends and family, so each year at the end of the year, they come back to visit their family."

Like most Iranian "haft-seen" tables, the Goshtasbis’ included sumac, garlic, vinegar, coins, apples, mountain ash and wheatgrass sprouts, all of which start with the letter S in the Persian alphabet. But some objects on the family’s table were particular to Zoroastrianism. A glass of milk symbolized purity. A bowl of water with a large pomegranate floating in it symbolized the Earth in space. "And just think," Goshtasbi said, "this was something that people were doing thousands of years ago while Galileo was discovering it much later."

Zoroastrians also include a glass of wine, a tradition not shared by most Muslims who celebrate Nowruz.

Still, for the Goshtasbis, as for many who celebrate Nowruz, the holiday is more cultural than religious. A few nights before the spring equinox, people jump over fires to burn off the past year’s woes and take in the flames’ health and vigor. Thirteen days after the holiday, they leave the house for a daylong picnic.

Waiting for the magical moment of the new year, Athra watched a cartoon in Farsi about Nowruz and asked her mother what their relatives in Australia were up to.

"They’re 13 hours ahead of us right now," Yazdani said, "so when the year changes over there, it’s the middle of the night." Next year, she added, the exact moment of the equinox would be a different time of day. It can also fall on March 21.

As the family stood around the table, Athra counted down the seconds on a cellphone clock.

"It’s 1:32," she said.

The family embraced, and Yazdani poured rose water on everyone’s hands to herald the new year.

Jamshid Goshtasbi stretched one leg under the table and raised it ever so slightly.

"Oh, there, look," he said, laughing as the egg moved.